My first act as Labour leader was to address a demonstration supporting refugees. Thousands gathered in Parliament Square to demand action following the horrific and avoidable death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in the Mediterranean Sea. It seemed as if the tide might turn. Even usually anti-migrant tabloids couldn’t avoid reporting on this tragedy. But six years on, thousands more people have perished in the region due to negligence or deliberate policy.
The number of refugees has skyrocketed this decade, with 80 million people now displaced worldwide by military, environmental and political crises. The way powerful nations respond has worsened too. During the coronavirus pandemic, 2,000 refugees died in the Mediterranean as a result of European states’ actions – from towing rafts out to sea without even offers of lifejackets or water, to arresting rescue workers.
Refugees are deported by EU governments to Libya in spite of a civil war and reports of enslavement. And from the European and US borders to Australian island camps, those that survive are subjected to violence, imprisonment and hateful rhetoric from politicians and the billionaire media.
Representatives of the wealthy few insist we choose between helping people in need at home and overseas. But such people are interested in helping neither. Conservative governments spent the last decade closing schools and hospitals, cutting welfare, and allowing bosses to pay poverty wages and sack workers at will, while giving tax handouts to the rich. Now they tell us that cruelty to migrants is somehow about protecting our jobs and services.
Boris Johnson is narrowing an already tiny refugee resettlement scheme. His government wants to block refugees fleeing persecution because of politics, religion, sexuality or gender identity. It plans to send people to countries where they have no connections, a move condemned by the UN’s refugee agency. And it is finding new ways to cut people off from legal advice, potentially allowing the Home Office to break the rules unchallenged.
Refugees are people just like us. The way they are treated is a litmus test for the way we all are treated. Many stopped by immigration officials under the hostile environment are British citizens who appear to have been racially profiled. Border agents raiding workplaces, or health workers being forced to act as immigration officials, creates a grim environment for everyone and is unavoidably linked to other authoritarian moves, such as the proposed protest ban.
The pandemic year has been a wake-up call. We cannot separate justice at home from global justice. The rich world’s refusal (now with the exception of the US) to allow poorer countries to manufacture their own vaccines risks vaccine-resistant virus strains harming everyone. We need bold and serious leadership on building solidarity across borders.
People are decent and compassionate, and positive about living in a diverse society. There is no inherent majority for anti-migrant sentiment. As Labour leader, I was proud to support brave campaigners who raised the Windrush scandal and demonstrated that the powerful can be forced to change course. And in Glasgow last week, the local community showed they would stand with their neighbours against anti-migrant raids, and won.
Resisting Johnson’s clampdown and helping our fair share of people seeking safety is necessary. But we also need a movement that offers practical solidarity, supporting organisations like Care for Calais that work with those suffering in camps. Above all, we need to tackle the causes of displacement. The wars, resource shortages, oppression and extreme poverty that people flee are not accidents. The arms industry, fossil fuel polluters, pharmaceutical giants and agribusiness, mining interests and sweatshop owners, and the grubby deals we strike with violent regimes, put our elites at the heart of a system that generates more refugee crises.
Climate action, arms control and tackling inequality are priorities for us all, but particularly for refugees. As those most sharply affected by these injustices, refugees can and should shape how we campaign. Refugees are not passive victims. From the Syrians in Spain, who recently founded the country’s first refugee-led news outlet, to the Glasgow Girls who highlighted the treatment faced by people seeking asylum, refugees can and do shape us all for the better. Throughout history our culture, knowledge and society have been enriched by people who move.
That’s why, through our Peace and Justice Project, we are holding an event next week highlighting the voices and hopes of displaced people. We’re proud to have the International Transport Workers’ Federation supporting our event, which speaks up for seafarers like those aboard the Iuventa 10, spied on and arrested for the crime of saving refugees’ lives. Having union support is also crucial, because when domestic and migrant workers refuse to be divided over pay and conditions, we all win.
The rise in displacement has led some to call this the “century of the refugee”. That does not have to be a phrase that points to more displacement and despair – instead, it can remind us that to seek justice for the most vulnerable is to seek justice for us all.
Jeremy Corbyn is the founder of the Peace and Justice Project and former leader of the Labour Party